Tonight I heard in concert something which I have waited more than 10 years to hear live: Japanese Gagaku music. At university I wrote a dissertation on this completely rare form of traditional Japanese music that has the longest continued performance tradition of any music in the world. It is traceable, with the same repertoire, easily back to 6th Century AD. We know that the same pieces were being played then because the music has been carefully and rigourously notated.

This music is so rare and special that UNESCO has awarded it Intangible Cultural Heritage status – i.e. ‘DON’T CHANGE IT FFS!’ status. It did nearly die out at the end of the 19th century, but then various groups were shored up to safeguard it, including the Imperial Household Orchestra from the Emperor’s Palace in Tokyo, who I heard tonight. They don’t get out much, of Japan that is, so it was a real coup for the Edinburgh International Festival to get them booked for, as far as I can tell, their first ever Scottish date since they started occasional tours in the 1950s.

The music is slow, yet with a sense of inevitability as one sound follows another. And it is, to my ears, completely hypnotising. We think that the music has slowed down dramatically over the centuries. This might be one surprising effect of it being written down and fixed, rather than passed on in a purely oral way.

Here’s a really bad picture from my camera phone that probably only proves I was there. I WAS THERE! It was quite a fancy set-up as you’ll probably see. That big thing on the left-hand side turned out to be a drum! They had dancers too for the second half.

When I wrote my dissertation, I chose as the theme to look at the way Western composers had started to write pieces of music in the Western Classical tradition which drew on this Gagaku, either in writing for the instruments/ensembles or by trying to mimic them with Western instrumentation. If you’re interested, check out Messiaen’s piece Sept Haikai for orchestra, which includes a movement called Gagaku.

There’s so much I could say (I wrote a dissertation on it, so natch) but that’s a wee taster for youse. Oh, and this is an ear-taster from the old tube of youse.

Against the Poets – next reading! Mon 13th Aug, 7pm, it’s frrrrree at Word Power Bookshop, Edinburgh

Hail Glad Crowds,

I’m reading at this event, which is part one of two (the other’s on the 16th and equally tempting). It was an curious title to invite a poet to read under so I did a bit of interrogating and found out the organisers are taking the ‘Against the Poets’ title from an essay by Polish 20th century novelist Gombrowicz. Turns out that the essay, rather than a self-indulgent, lazy tirade trotting out tired opinions about elitism in poetry, was an enjoyable provocation touching on some interesting points. I think the main thing I took from it was that Gombrowicz had identified some lazy behaviour in poetry audiences who wanted perhaps to consume poetry as a product which provided quick access to rapture and elysium, and that as poetry practices ossified into ritual it was in danged of becoming a dead art form with no connection to the lived life.

I’m still sceptical about this line of argument; the development of ritual and ossification even are processes which really interest me, along with their human roots and implications. But, the article was written around 1950 and I think there have been seismic shifts noticeable even to conservative poetry audiences since then. Even the likes of Larkin came after and pushed back the readership’s tolerance of ¬†scatalogical, painfully confessional or bathetic content, say. ¬†At the same time, I liked that Gombrowicz said that writers ought to make sure their work expressed themselves in a true way. The call to remember that your creative products should be hard won attempts to wrest something of your experience and most strained-after perceptions if they’re to further knowledge, is welcome to my ears still.

Gombrowicz talked about ‘endlessly lofty singing’ as his experience of poetry, of being bored by it. I’m pleased to say that I think we’ve found ways of keeping the party going while updating the playlist.

For details of the reading click here

By the way, Scottish Poetry Godfather Tom Leonard is reading at this event. OMG. So do come if you can.

That there’s Gombers himself. Ooh!